The Caspian region hasn’t been receiving much attention lately in comparison with attention the Middle East typically gets. However, there’s every chance that Russia, the United States, the EU and China will soon focus attention on this inner part of Eurasia, as this region begins to play an increasingly important role in international affairs, especially against the backdrop of the signing of the Convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea.
Previously, legal relations in the Caspian Sea were regulated by the treaties signed by Russia and Persia following the results of two Russo-Iranian wars of the 19th century, and then by the bilateral agreements between Iran and the Soviet Union who both had equal rights on the use of the Caspian and its resources.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent formation of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States), all of the Caspian states would be busy tending to their own problems — ranging from the need to establish a legal system, a national economy, a framework for combating extremism, etc. However, the absence of set borders within the Caspian region would soon begin affecting regional affairs in a negative way. Further still, this state of uncertainty was aggravated even further by Western sanctions being imposed on Iran, and then on Russia. However, the sanctions have become a catalyst for the pursuit of a common legal space in the Caspian Sea by regional players.
That’s how the group of states known as the Caspian Five – Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan – signed on August 12 in Aktau, Kazakhstan the above mentioned Convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea, which was in discussion since 1996. Unsurprisingly, an ever increasing number of international analysts would describe this document as a “constitution” of the Caspian Sea, which sets clear boundaries between common and territorial waters of the Caspian Sea, while establishing limits to fishing zones in strict adherence with the principles of international law. The Convention defines and regulates the rights and obligations of the parties with respect to the use of the Caspian Sea, including its waters, bottom, natural resources and its air space, transforming the outer boundary of territorial waters into state borders. Moreover, the division of the territories between the states sharing adjacent strips of the coast is now clear-cut, with no room left for a potential conflicts.
From this point on shipping, fishing, scientific research and pipeline construction will be conducted in accordance with the agreed upon principles.
A number of experts drew special attention to the logistical aspect of the Convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea as a number of trading routes of China’s OBOR (One Belt, One Road) will pass through this region, along with a number of alternative projects. Among them is the so-called Southern Corridor which will allow Kazakhstan to supply hydrocarbons to the European Union directly. However, this new convention will empower Russia to have a say in such projects, while providing it with a chance to take part in them. Thus, the so-called “Caspian constitution” will ensure that such projects will not replace Russia’s gas supplies to Europe completely. The latter scenario has been the golden dream of both the United States and United Kingdom who have both been actively pushing for it to happen.
As for the transportation and logistics component, regional players are busy making them a reality, with construction works on North-South transport picking up steam, the Caspian hub in Dagestan being just around the corner and Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway corridor being launched. The latter will become a crucial link of China’s OBOR. These developments have the potential to bring a positive change into the lives of tens of millions of people living both within the region and in its immediate vicinity. With millions of new jobs being created, the establishment of a transport corridor between Europe, Russia, Turkey, Iran, India and China will only accelerate this process. But, most importantly, the new transport corridors will be much more secure than the existing communications lines running across the Indian Ocean.
Further still, the Convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea has effectively outlawed the presence out non-Caspian armed forces in the region, making it impossible for any of the Caspian Five states to provide its territory to outside players for military deployment, thus eliminating a scenario in which any one of them could be used a base for aggression against the other four. What this means is that Washington or London will not be able to use the Caspian basin for the containment of any of the states they consider their rivals, namely China, Russia and Iran.
It is no wonder that this part of the so-called Caspian constitution triggered massive outrage in Washington, since from now on NATO will be unable to transport its military forces across the territory of the Caspian Sea. It’s no secret that Washington has been in search of ways and pretexts to strengthen its military positions in the region by constructing massive military sites that would present a real threat to the national security of both Russia and Iran. But that is exactly why this convention has been regarded as a massive victory for Moscow, Tehran, and Beijing.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres welcomed the signing of the Convention on the status of the Caspian Sea, calling the document a historic achievement and an invaluable tool that will shape bilateral relations between regional players and harness regional stability. He stressed that this historic document demonstrates the importance of regional cooperation, which is necessary for the effective maintenance of international peace.
However, CNN’s own correspondent Nina Santos would display a different opinion by noting that the signing by Russia of the Convention on the Caspian Sea is a major victory for Moscow, because Russia has now an opportunity not only to safely exploit Caspian oil and gas fields, but also is better able to implement plans in the Middle East.
The Convention on the status of the Caspian Sea, successfully signed after prolonged disputes was an imperative step for Moscow to take due to its economic and geopolitical implications, note Western media sources, with The Guardian describing this as a big triumph for Russia’s Vladimir Putin, while the Independent would add that the constitution of the Caspian would secure Russia’s dominance in the region.
In turn, Le Monde describes this step as a milestone achievement for Russia, one that will strengthen its image as a diplomatic powerhouse, while ensuring its military dominance in the region. The media source argues that even if Russia had to sacrifice some of its economic preferences during the negotiation process, its gains are going to be impressive both in the short and long term.
It is noteworthy that on the eve of the signing of the Caspian Constitution a number of Western states, especially the United States and Britain, were quick to realize that they wouldn’t be able to use the Caspian basin as its playground for NATO troops. This is why Washington was eager to derail the negotiation process by creating an atmosphere of distrust and antagonism. That is why it accelerated its efforts to negotiate the establishment of an American military presence in Kazakhstan. As a matter of fact, Washington has gone above and beyond in its attempt to blackmail Astana with the freezing a half of Kazakhstan’s Future Generation Fund.
Additionally, it would try to downplay the role that Tehran is playing in the convention by noting that it wasn’t winning anything from deal and that it could bring nothing to the table. However, no matter how bad Western sanctions against Iran get, or how many lies British and American media sources try to force-feed to their readers, Iran remains a powerful regional player and a viable addition to the Convention on the legal status of the Caspian Sea.
What is particularly curious in this whole situation is that it is precisely the behavior of the United States and Britain, shown prior to the signing of the deal that has inspired the Caspian Five to overcome their differences. And it’s clear Russia and Iran will further strengthen their cooperation the more pressure is applied to them by the West. Now, both Moscow and Tehran have proof that they are devoted to living within a multipolar world where citizens of Caspian countries are treated as friends. However, by striking a deal that will have important economic, strategic and political implications for the region and beyond, no wonder they have made a lot of hawks in the West angry.
Martin Berger is a freelance journalist and geopolitical analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”